And as the author of far too many October disappointments to name — too many, at least, to shrug off as sheer randomness — he is the enduring symbol, fairly or not, of the Dodgers’ postseason failures during their current run of eight consecutive National League West titles.
The latest Kershaw stumble came Thursday night in Game 4 of the NL Championship Series, when he was vastly outpitched by 22-year-old Atlanta Braves rookie Bryse Wilson in a 10-2 Dodgers loss. Whether this will become the eighth straight postseason exit for the Dodgers could be learned as early as Friday night in Game 5, with the resurgent Braves now ahead 3-1 in the series.
At a point in the series when the grueling format — games every night with no off-days — is beginning to reveal its toll, the Dodgers appear set to start right-hander Dustin May in Game 5; the Braves had yet to announce a starter as of the last pitch Thursday night.
Every bit of rational logic, and every computer algorithm and betting line, suggested the Dodgers, a 43-17 juggernaut during this pandemic-shortened regular season, were headed toward a series-tying victory Thursday night.
Not only were they coming off a merciless 15-3 beatdown of the Braves in Game 3 the night before, but they were sending Kershaw to the mound to face a kid making his postseason debut, having been passed over by the Braves in each of the first two rounds. Wilson, a fourth-round draft pick in 2016, owned a career 5.91 ERA across 15 big league appearances, seven of them starts. He is known in his own clubhouse as “Lunchbox” — not because of his work ethic, but because of his shape.
But what Wilson did Thursday night — namely, outpitch a future Hall of Famer, limit the highest-scoring offense in baseball this season to one hit over six dazzling innings and put the Braves within one more victory of a trip to the World Series — will secure his place forever in Braves lore.
Ahead of Game 4, Braves Manager Brian Snitker said he would be thrilled to get five innings out of Wilson — the third consecutive rookie starter to take the mound for the Braves in this series — but when the top of the sixth rolled around, with the score tied at 1 and the top of the Dodgers’ lineup about to face him for the third time, Wilson, improbably, was still in there. He mowed down the Dodgers one last time, 1-2-3, a pivotal frame that ensured the Braves could deploy only their best bullpen arms the rest of the way.
The Dodgers managed just one hit off Wilson, a solo homer by Edwin Rios in the third. It was no stretch to call it the best start of his big league career: In only one of the previous seven had he lasted six innings, and in none of those seven had he given up as few as one hit.
It was that same sixth inning, and the same third-time-through-the-order decision, that also proved fateful for Kershaw. As the 32-year-old lefty took the mound for the bottom half of the inning, he was facing the top of the Braves’ order for the third time — a privilege the team rarely extends to anyone but him. When Ronald Acuna Jr. led off with an infield single, Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna were the next two Braves batters. Both had hit Kershaw hard in their previous plate appearance — Freeman’s line-out and Ozuna’s solo homer to left.
The Dodgers decided to leave the game in Kershaw’s hands, and Freeman and Ozuna lined consecutive run-scoring doubles. It was 3-1, Kershaw was headed for the showers, and it would be 7-1 before the Dodgers could finally get out of the inning. Ozuna, meantime, would add another homer in the seventh off Dylan Floro, and went 4 for 5 with four RBI.
There were no visible signs of lingering issues with Kershaw’s long-troublesome back, which had flared up again on Tuesday and pushed back his start by two days, but his fastball was down a couple of ticks on the radar gun from where it was sitting earlier in this postseason. He also may not have expected to be pitching in a wind-whipped chill — especially in a stadium with a roof.
At 6 p.m., a little more than an hour before first pitch, the 268,000-square-foot retractable roof atop Globe Life Field began to open, revealing a steel-gray, windswept sky. It was 68 degrees and falling at first pitch, with winds of 15 to 22 mph — the kind of night when the Texas Rangers, who moved into their new stadium this season, would have probably kept it closed. But largely due to coronavirus concerns, and with a crowd of 11,044 on hand, MLB decided it should be open Thursday night.
Kerhsaw’s baggy uniform was flapping in the wind as if he were pitching in front of a giant, industrial fan. Every pop up was an adventure. A handful of deep drives appeared to die in the wind at the warning track — none more important, or more obvious, than A.J. Pollack’s smash to right in the seventh with two on and nobody out, which appeared headed for the seats but settled into Acuna’s glove just shy of the wall. The Dodgers squandered numerous opportunities in that frame to get back in the game, stranding the bases loaded when catcher Will Smith lined out.
In all, four earned runs were charged to Kershaw over his five-plus innings of work Thursday night, raising his career ERA in the postseason to 4.31 — nearly two runs worse than his career 2.43 mark in the regular season. A pair of wins in the early rounds had lifted Kershaw’s career record in the postseason to the .500 mark, but Thursday night’s loss dropped him back below, at 11-12.
He has delivered legendary October performances for the Dodgers in his career, too many to name. But somehow, it’s the losses that stick to him, the losses that people remember.